by Jeremy Dummett

Selinunte is one of the most extensive and fascinating sites from the classical Greek world to be found anywhere. It covers an area that once contained an entire Greek city and offers a unique opportunity to understand how such cities operated. Selinunte is located in a spectacular and unspoilt setting. Out of season it is possible to wander around the remains of ancient temples, paved streets, fortifications and gates, strewn with pieces of columns, roof tiles and blocks of stone, with few people in sight.

Temple E, on the eastern hill, dedicated to the goddess Hera

Temple E, on the eastern hill, dedicated to the goddess Hera

Selinus was a Sicilian Greek city, built overlooking the sea on the south-western coast of the island, which prospered for around 240 years, from its foundation in about 650 until destruction by the Carthaginians in 409 BC.The most western of the Sicilian Greek cities, Selinus was founded by men from Megara Hyblaea on the east coast of the island. The reason for this move was that their city was too close to Syracuse to allow for further expansion. Megara, the mother-city in Greece, sent a contingent led by Pamillus to support the new settlement.

The first wave of Greek colonisation in Sicily, which began in the 8th century BC, established settlements along the east coast including Naxos, Syracuse, Catana and Megara Hyblaea. Territory for Megara was provided by Hyblon, king of the local Sicel community, who preceded the Greeks in Sicily. These Greek settlements were so successful, thanks to the fertile land and an abundance of fish in the coastal waters, that a second wave of settlements followed on the northern and southern coasts, of which the foundation of Selinus was a part.

Selinon leaf on coin from 480-466 BC

Selinon leaf on coin from 480-466 BC

Selinus was built on raised land with a river on each side, the Selinus and the Hypsas (the modern Cottone). The city, like the river, took its name from selinon, the wild celery, or parsley, that grew on the river banks. From early days the leaf of this plant was adopted as the badge of the city. A river god of the same name became venerated, in the manner of the Greeks, for whom fresh water was sacred.The settlement developed into a city consisting of:

  • an acropolis facing the sea containing five temples and the public buildings laid out on a grid system surrounded by walls, with the main gates to the north
  • a residential quarter leading up the Manuzza Hill, inland from the acropolis
  • a separate quarter to the east, containing three more temples
  • a sanctuary to Demeter Malophorus, goddess of the harvest (Malophorus meaning “bearer of apples”) to the west
  • land cultivated on the inland plain, providing crops both for the city and for export, which became the basis of the city’s wealth
  • harbours for the ships, formed by widening the mouths of the rivers

Commercial contacts were maintained with the Greek cities of Sicily, mainland Greece, Etruria and with Carthage in North Africa.

At its peak in the 5th century BC, the population of the city is estimated at between 50 and 60,000, with perhaps a further 25 to 30,000 living in the nearby countryside. This compares to around 300,000 for the largest Sicilian Greek cities, Syracuse and Akragas (modern Agrigento).

Site of Selinunte, ancient Selinus

Site of Selinunte, ancient Selinus

While the main events in the development of Selinus seem clear, little is known about everyday life in the city or about its inhabitants. Only at times of crisis did the city receive the attention of the ancient historians.

The history

After the foundation of the settlement the first buildings and temples were built in 650-600, followed by the Sanctuary of Demeter and the agora (the marketplace), on the south-western foot of the Manuzza hill. The town plan with its grid system for the streets of the acropolis was put in place in 580-570.

Central road through the akropolis

Central road through the acropolis

The pattern of development seems to have been similar to that of the major Greek cities. Initially ruled by an aristocratic party of big landowners, descendants of the founding families, the city later fell under the control of tyrants. In the 6th century three tyrants are named as Terone, Peithagoras and Euryleon. Outposts were established along the coast to protect the city’s borders, to the east at Heraclea Minoa and Sciacca and to the west at Mazara.While eastern Sicily was being colonised by the Greeks, the west of the island came under the control of the Carthaginians, who had absorbed the Phoenician outposts of Motya, Panormus (Palermo) and Solunto. Initially Selinus became wealthy through trade with Carthage, which lay only a hundred miles away on the African coast, in modern Tunisia. But as rivalry grew between Carthage and the Greeks to control Sicily, Selinus found itself in an increasingly exposed position.

Selinus was constantly opposed by Segesta, its neighbour to the north. Segesta and Eryx (modern Erice) were settlements founded by Elymians, a tribe established in Sicily before the arrival of the Greeks. Continual hostilities between Selinunte and Segesta threatened the livelihood of both cities. Thucydides, who deplored the inter-city wars, noted that the danger point was when revenge became more important than self-preservation.

In 480 the Carthaginians invaded Sicily with a large force. In a day long battle at Himera, on the north coast of the island, they were decisively beaten by a combined army from Syracuse and Akragas, led by the tyrants Gelon and Theron. Hamilcar, the Carthaginian general, died in the battle. Selinunte supported the Carthaginians and their cavalry was intercepted by Gelon and used to penetrate the Carthaginian defences. This defeat, which coincided with the Athenians’ victory over the Persians at Salamis, temporarily removed the Carthaginian threat from Sicily, bringing in a period of prosperity.

During this period Selinus suffered from a fever with widespread effects, possibly malaria, caused by the stagnant marshes. Empledocle, a scientist and philosopher from Akragas, was called upon for help. He solved the problem by cutting channels to keep the water flowing and was considered the saviour of the city.

The next threat to the Sicilian Greeks came from Athens. In 415 the Athenians invaded Sicily with the prime target of capturing Syracuse, the most powerful city on the island. It was part of a grand plan during the Peloponnesian War against Sparta and her allies. Segesta played its part by appealing to Athens for help against Selinunte, thus providing an excuse to invade, and when Athenian ambassadors visited Segesta they were promised financial support.

The northern gate

The northern gate

Syracuse was besieged by the Athenians for two years in a war affecting the whole of Sicily. When the Athenians went to Segesta to collect their money they found there was none and Segesta played no further part in the war. It is said that the temple in Segesta was built to impress the Athenian ambassadors and that it was never completed for lack of funds. The Athenians were finally defeated in a sea battle in the harbour of Syracuse in September 413. Practically the entire Athenian force of 40,000 men was killed or captured, with only a handful escaping to tell the tale.In the aftermath of the Athenian war, Selinunte saw an opportunity to settle accounts with Segesta and invaded its territory. Segesta appealed to Carthage for help. In 409 the Carthaginians, seeking revenge for their earlier defeat, invaded with a force of 100,000 led by Hannibal, grandson of Hamilcar who died at Himera (not to be confused with the later Hannibal who fought the Romans). When the Selinuntians saw the huge force drawn up outside their city they sent urgent appeals for help to Syracuse and Akragas, but none was forthcoming. Fierce fighting went on for nine days, the Selinuntians defending their city desperately, street by street.

Diodorus, a Sicilian Greek historian, described the scene:

Hannibal, who had promised the soldiers that he would give them the city to pillage, pushed the siege-engines forward and assaulted the walls in waves with his best soldiers. And all together the trumpets sounded the signal for attack and at one command the army of Carthaginians as a body raised the war-cry and by the power of the rams the walls were shaken, while by reason of the height of the towers the fighters on them slew many of the Selinuntians. For in the long period of peace they had enjoyed they had given no attention whatever even to their walls and so they were easily subdued, since the wooden towers far exceeded the walls in height. When the wall fell, the Carthaginians, being eager to accomplish some outstanding feat, broke swiftly into the city.

A massacre took place, 16,000 of the inhabitants were killed, almost all the rest taken prisoner, while less than 3,000 managed to escape to Akragas. When the news reached Syracuse, ambassadors were sent to Hannibal asking him to spare the temples and to release the prisoners. Both requests were refused. The walls and buildings of the city were demolished and the prisoners, including women and children, were kept to be taken to Carthage as slaves. Selinus, as an independent Greek city, ceased to exist.

In the fighting that followed many other Greek cities were sacked by the Carthaginians, until eventually only Syracuse remained independent. Wartime conditions allowed for the rise of a powerful tyrant in Syracuse, Dionysius I, who later turned the tide of the Carthaginian advance. In 397 a Sicilian Greek army led by Dionysius destroyed the Carthaginian base at Motya (modern Mozia).

During the war the ruins of Selinus were briefly occupied by a small Greek army led by Hermocrates, a Syracusan general, who refortified the northern gate. The city then became a Carthaginian colony with some Greek inhabitants. The Syracusans under Dionysius and Agathocles briefly recaptured it, for use as a base for their operations in western Sicily. In 250, during the Second Punic War, the Carthaginians finally destroyed Selinus, removing the population to Lilybaeum (Marsala) to prevent it being taken by the Romans. From the 1st century BC, Selinus ceased to be inhabited.

The archaeological site

For centuries the ruins of Selinus, the damage done by war aggravated by earthquakes, lay hidden beneath the undergrowth, sections of columns half submerged in the marshes. For a long time it was thought that the site lay beneath the port of Mazara. In the 1550s a Dominican friar named Tommaso Fazello set out to write the history of ancient Sicily and during his research rediscovered the site of ancient Selinus.

Excavations began in earnest in the 19th century and in 1822 two Englishmen, Angell and Harris, discovered some well preserved metopes, sculptured friezes showing scenes from Greek myths, from Temple E. These together with later finds, including hundreds of terracotta figures from the Sanctuary of Demeter, can be seen in the archaeological museum in Palermo. They should not be missed, for these metopes in the Selinunte Room of Palermo’s Museo Archeologico Regionale, “Antonio Salinas”, are among the finest examples of ancient Greek sculpture to be found in Sicily. A classic bronze statue of a youth, which dates from 480 – 460 and found in 1882, can be seen in the museum in Castelvetrano.

 

Aerial view of the akropolis with the northern gate in the foreground

Aerial view of the acropolis with the northern gate in the foreground

Entry to the site is on the east hill, where transport is available in open cars. The first stop is by the three temples. Temple G was originally vast, probably dedicated to Zeus, and dates from the second half of the 6th century. Piles of stone are all that remain. Temple F, possibly dedicated to Athena or to Dionysius, was smaller and pre-dates G by a few years. Temple E was built later, around 470–460, in the city’s period of greatest wealth. It was dedicated to Hera, the wife of Zeus and protectress of weddings, which took place here. The temple, which has been partially restored, is the most spectacular relic of ancient Selinus.The next stop is over the valley to the base of the acropolis, past the high, outer wall built in steps, that dates from around 540. Here there is a small museum with some relics from the Spanish era. A broad terrace opens up facing the sea, containing some pieces of Carthaginian origin. In front is the ancient walled city with its clearly marked streets, and the restored part of Temple C visible, which dates from 560–540, dedicated to Apollo. At the far end of the central road dividing the acropolis lies the northern gate, heavily fortified. To the north of the gate are more defences, some of which were built after the Carthaginians’ capture of the city. Further up the hill lies the site of the ancient residential quarter, and to the west, after a 15 minute walk, the atmospheric Sanctuary of Demeter Malophorus.

Le Cave di Cusa – the ancient quarries, source of stone for the temples

Le Cave di Cusa – the ancient quarries, source of stone for the temples

Since 2014 excavations have been carried out at Selinunte under the direction of Martin Bentz, of Bonn University in Germany. The layout of the ancient city is being traced in both its residential and industrial sectors. In the valley where the river once ran, which lies between the temples on the east hill and the acropolis, remains of pottery kilns have been  found indicating that this was the site of ceramic production on a large scale, much of it for export. The site of the ancient harbour is also being examined. Such findings will help towards the understanding of how the ancient city functioned.The ancient quarries that supplied the stone for the temples, le Cave di Cusa, can be seen about half an hour’s drive away near Campobello. Here huge columns have been partially cut out of the rock and other pieces left abandoned. It is a scene frozen in time, from when the city’s temple building came to an abrupt end with the arrival of Hannibal’s army in 409 BC.